Save a Diver, Save Yourself

The lessons learned in a rescue diver course may help you save your buddy or a fellow diver, as well as improve your ability to recognize and respond to your own situation. Photo by Stephen Frink

The benefits of a rescue diver course

Most of my diving has been while on vacations at various resorts, where I always feel safe and comfortable. I am a conservative diver who always strives for safety first and believes that the best dive is the one where you return to the boat. On one such resort trip, a dive instructor asked if I wanted to get my advanced open-water certification. I decided it was time to challenge myself, so I got the certification.

After retiring, I continued to progress and took a rescue diver course. It was difficult for me at age 65, but I endured. Enthusiastic studying for the exam paid off, and I was honored and proud to receive my certificate.

One idea that has stuck with me about the rescue diver course is something I had overheard on a previous dive boat trip: “You take the rescue course to save yourself.” I thought about the meaning of that and realized that divers can’t save themselves unless they understand what’s happening and how to evaluate the problem, keep breathing and act. It sounds simple, but the rescue diver course helped me solidify my safety and survival skills. I may not remember every detail, but one item still stands out for me as invaluable for a new diver: Any dive can be stopped at any time, for any reason, without question. To that I would add “and without embarrassment.” That advice would eventually save me.

With the pandemic spreading and limiting travel, I decided to dive near my home in the New Jersey waters. All my previous diving had been from dive boats in warm Caribbean or Florida waters with excellent visibility. An Inlet and Shore Diving course sounded like a good starting point for getting comfortable in new waters. I was not used to the low visibility, cooler water temperature and full wetsuits. Until then, I was used to diving in a shorty wetsuit with 14 pounds of weight. For these dives I carried 16 pounds while wearing a full wetsuit.

The first inlet dive was on a Saturday promptly at 6:15 a.m. The early in-water time was to coordinate with the tide. My day started at 4 a.m. so I could get there on time for our predive meeting, scheduled for an hour before the dive. After I had a brief adjustment period of settling in at the new environment, the dive went well. Maneuvering the rocky terrain with full gear was unusual to me, but the new experience was exciting. I felt confident about the next day’s dive.

My second shore dive — lifetime dive number 67 — was scheduled for 7 a.m. Sunday at a different location that seemed easier and safer. This beach didn’t have rocks to traverse to get into the water.  It was a perfectly cloudless, sunny morning with a west wind (the preferred direction), a temperature nearing 90°F and high humidity.  

We met at the access pathway to the beach for our predive instruction and then returned to our cars to suit up. I had parked about 70 yards from the entrance to the beach access ramp. After suiting up with my tank, weights and full wetsuit, I started my walk back to meet at the access entrance.  

At this point I was starting to heat up but still had to cross the dune and walk another 30 yards to the water. I was unaware that I was sweating and how hot I was getting in the wetsuit. After the final instruction, I entered the water with my group. I swam maybe 20 to 25 yards, just past the wave breaks, to wait for the other divers to assemble and get our final OK signal to dive. Without any warning I started to get oxygen-starved, and my breathing became excessive. I was unable to control my breathing and immediately knew something was unusual. As much as I tried to compose myself and breathe normally, I couldn’t stop sucking in air. My gauge showed that I was down to 2000 psi from the 2400 psi with which I had started, and I had been in the water for only seven minutes.  

Thanks to my training, I quickly communicated the situation to the lead diver, who immediately started a rescue plan to get me to shore. After telling the other divemaster to take the rest of the divers in the group, he came to me to begin a tank pull to shore, asking about my condition and instructing me to fill my buoyancy compensator. Once we were on land, he immediately alerted emergency medical services (EMS) and the local shore police.

EMS provided first aid oxygen, checked my vitals and questioned me about my condition. Fortunately, I had no other symptoms. The divemaster handled the entire situation properly, immediately, professionally and with all the protocols that I recognized from my rescue diver course. I followed up with an evaluation by my physician, who cleared me to resume diving.

The rescue course is valuable for saving someone else and saving yourself. Knowing that something was not right and recalling the lesson that any dive can be stopped at any time, for any reason, without embarrassment, I made the call to cancel the dive and alert the divemaster about my condition. We adhered to our primary dive plan and activated the proper safety protocols, and I came out of the incident without injury.

Editor’s note: DAN Medical Services encourages divers to have a physician evaluate all possible causes of distress before returning to diving and to develop and implement measures to prevent another similar occurrence.

© Alert Diver — Q1 2021